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Tabina Iqbal

Languages and Literature, University of Warwick

Thesis title:

Samuel Beckett, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the I

When Samuel Beckett read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), he marked: ‘The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of it’. It appears in Bertrand Russell’s introduction and refers to the section in which Wittgenstein posits ‘The World as I Found It’, a hypothetical catalogue of every encounterable thing. Such a text, Wittgenstein argued, could only show that ‘in an important sense there is no subject, for it alone could not be mentioned in that book’. Wittgenstein expanded on this idea elsewhere, writing, ‘I confront every object but not the I’, prefiguring Beckett’s That Time (1976): ‘could you ever say I to yourself in your life?’ 

For Beckett’s Unnamable, this ‘cursed first person’ is ‘really too red a herring’. For Wittgenstein, it is ‘one of the most misleading representational techniques in our language’. Their concern is the same: what are the consequences of saying I if I has no referent? It becomes the ‘Unthinkable I’ in Beckett’s notebook for Company (1980), a text denying the first person. ‘Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not’. Wittgenstein too reached this point, arguing that some uses of I could, perhaps, be eliminated from language altogether; in fact, under such a system, we’d inevitably ‘see that the previous representation wasn’t essential to the facts’. Can the ego be denied within a language that cannot account for doubt when I is used? Can the I be written against, or is the only alternative the self-defeating un-saying that characterises Beckett’s title Not I (1971)?

Beckett scholarship has seldom acknowledged Wittgenstein’s I. The parallels above, philosophically striking and biographically pertinent, have yet to be elucidated. This would be the first sustained exploration of Beckett, Wittgenstein and the first person. I will demonstrate how both share a suspicion of the substantive ego, how this problematises the indexical function of the I – instead initiating a search for an unencounterable referent – and why, for both, the problem of the self must be addressed on a grammatical level.

My project justifies the primacy of the I both with recourse to Beckett’s reading traces and by demonstrating that Beckett’s late interest in Wittgenstein coincides with a shift in the representation of the I across his oeuvre, how Murphy‘s ‘com[ing] alive in his mind’ became Company‘s ‘[m]ental activity of a low order’. Examining the philosophies that interested Beckett at various points, this comparative approach will explicate Beckett’s ideas on the traversable-inner, certainty and doubt, the tenability of privacy, personhood and memory, and perception.

Research Area

  • English Language and Literature
  • Languages and Literature


2022, Organiser, The Engish and Comparative Literature Department's Postgraduate Symposium, University of Warwick (upcoming)

2015, Goldsmiths Literary Seminar (GLITS), Goldsmiths, University of London: 'Unspeakable Home: Journey Towards Unity in Samuel Beckett's Three Novels'

Scholarships and Prizes

(2022 - 2023) HRC Doctoral Fellowship 

(2021) Midlands4Cities Doctoral Studentship Award

(2021) South, West, and Wales AHRC Doctoral Studentship Award

(2018) John Oliver Hobbes Memorial Scholarship Prize: Best MA Dissertation

(2014) Winifred Hyde Prize: Overall Highest First